Georgia takes cold comfort from Clinton as Russia talks in more bellicose terms
ANALYSIS:Recovering from recent war, Tbilisi is striving to steer clear of another, writes DAN McLAUGHLIN
HILLARY CLINTON’S words of support for Georgia during her visit this week to Moscow did little to calm fears in Tbilisi about Russia’s intentions in the turbulent Caucasus mountains.
Two of Russia’s most powerful men sent shivers through Tbilisi during the US secretary of state’s stay in Moscow, with statements that fuelled worries the Kremlin’s fight with rebels in its own restive Caucasus republics could spill into neighbouring Georgia.
The struggle between Moscow’s security forces and militants, once confined to Chechnya, is equally intense in two other Russian regions, Dagestan and Ingushetia, where police and soldiers come under daily attack and senior officials are frequent targets.
Russian president Dmitry Medvedev has been forced to admit it was premature this spring to declare an end to anti-terrorist operations in Chechnya, and his top security staff claim the Caucasus is now a focal point for international Islamist militants closely linked to al-Qaeda. It came as a surprise however, when the head of Russia’s domestic security service, the FSB, accused Tbilisi this week of collaborating with al-Qaeda and helping insurgents attack Russia. “Tapes taken from militants show that they, together with al-Qaeda, established contact with representatives of Georgian special services,” said Alexander Bortnikov, claiming that, through these links, Tbilisi “participated in the training and transfer of terrorists to the territory of Chechnya”.
He also accused Georgia of “perpetually undertaking to deliver weapons, explosives and financing for subversive acts on high-security sites in Dagestan – first and foremost on oil and gas pipelines”.
Georgia, a key energy export route still rebuilding after last year’s disastrous five-day war with Russia over the Kremlin-backed breakaway region of South Ossetia, was swift to rebut Bortnikov’s claims. “Of course this is yet another preposterous propaganda statement. The goal is to increase the temperature in an already tense situation,” said Eka Tkeshelashvili, head of Georgia’s security council. “In case Russia decides to take aggressive actions against Georgia, it would use such accusations as a pretext. This is why the international community has to pay attention to these statements and point out that such statements are unacceptable.”
Georgia meets Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia along a remote frontier high in the Caucasus mountains, and rebels have found safe haven there before.
In 2001, Russia bombed Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, where the mountain passes lead down into an area clustered with villages inhabited by Kists – ethnic Chechens who settled in Georgia in the 19th century, and whose language and culture resemble those of Chechnya. At that time, the gorge had been used by Chechen rebels to regroup and rearm, stock up on supplies and treat injuries, with the apparent blessing of Georgia’s then president Eduard Shevardnadze. He allegedly let them use the gorge as a base in return for their leading a raid on Abkhazia, another Russian-backed separatist region of Georgia.
On a visit to the Pankisi Gorge two months ago, this correspondent found no evidence it was harbouring militants from Chechnya, Ingushetia or Dagestan. But it was full of Georgians who believed Russia would use the chimera of fugitive rebels to attack the gorge, and launch another conflict, which Georgia could not hope to win. Many Georgians, and some regional analysts, believe the hawks around prime minister Vladimir Putin may seek another small, victorious war to distract public attention from rising unemployment and deepening poverty caused by a recession.
Putin and Medvedev now also face an unprecedented challenge from their normally torpid parliament, where several parties known for their slavish loyalty to both men say they will boycott the chamber until the president meets them to discuss last weekend’s fraud-riddled local elections.
Fears over Moscow’s military plans were further fuelled by suggestions yesterday from Russian security council chief Nikolai Patrushev the Kremlin could use nuclear weapons in future wars similar to last year’s conflict with Georgia. “Conditions for using nuclear weapons to repel aggression with conventional weapons, not only in a large-scale but also in a regional and even a local war, have been revised,” he said. “In conditions critical for national security, one should not also exclude a preventive nuclear strike on the aggressor.”
In Moscow, Hillary Clinton will have noted the timing and substance of his comments, coming as US and Russian negotiators try to forge a nuclear arms reduction deal by December, and amid lingering Kremlin suspicion of Washington’s plans for a missile defence shield. Seeking to secure Russian backing for a tough stance on Iran’s nuclear programme, Clinton soft-pedalled somewhat on Georgia, only reiterating her support for its territorial integrity, for continued US training of its army, and for a constant peacekeeping presence in the divided country.
With Russia struggling to handle its own regions in the Caucasus, and looking for someone to blame for its failings there, Georgia would have hoped for bolder words from its strongest ally, as it strives to recover from one war and steer clear of another.
Dan McLaughlin reports on eastern and central Europe, Russia and the Caucasus